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Implementing Color Management in Tough Times

Tips to ensure color quality even when there's not much money to spare.

Can color management really be made easier and more affordable? In this time of economic turmoil, that’s something print providers are certainly wishing for. Here, I'll look at how various vendors have strived to make color management as easy to implement as possible.

Vendors have found that the fear factor seems to be one of the largest single impediments to shops putting a color-management strategy into practice. And even though a positive ROI on color management (CM) has been well documented over the years, print providers are increasingly reluctant to make any significant capital expenditures, particularly right now.

To help shops more easily pull the trigger on implementing color-management tools, the manufacturing community has been working to simplify the process in several ways: First, OEMs and vendors are integrating CM software into their workflow applications. This is being done by writing their own code into RIPs, adding OEM software with their own branding, or simply by bundling third-party software into various production packages. Second, manufacturers are keeping the software itself user friendly, and achieving a near-seamless integration of software and hardware. And, finally, OEMs are continuing to place an emphasis on training; no matter how good the software or how seamless the integration, there is still a degree of user training that must take place.

Where and when to color manage
In the early days of color management, vendors like Adobe began putting CM tools into its software products. The standard practice was to transform colors within programs like Photoshop. Print providers were largely the only ones concerned with managing color, and since they were often doing their work in a closed-loop environment, they could control color for their own output devices and didn’t need to be concerned with how the files would print in a different workflow. That has changed dramatically.

Today, files are widely distributed and printed on a large variety of devices. Print providers running wide-format devices must be concerned with how the same files will print on other devices in other plants, and whether a catalog printed on an offset press will match graphics in a P-O-P environment under fluorescent lights as well as the Web page featuring the same products. Not to mention matching the actual product when the end users get their hands on it.

Global Graphics, which makes the Harlequin RIP for a variety of vendors, builds color-management tools into its RIPs. That means the RIP needs to be able to read data found in the wide array of files that will hit the RIP and may or may not have already had profiles and color transformations applied.

The Harlequin RIP uses ICC profiles and Harlequin HQ profiles (which contain extra color information unavailable in ICC profiles) to convert between color spaces as needed on the way to the intended output device. All of the color-management decisions are performed at the last stage of the workflow, that of converting the page files into a raster form, appropriate for the intended output device.

This is a reversal of the old-school approach, where print providers requested everything be converted to CMYK before they received the image files. Now, a designer who receives images from a digital camera in a RGB color space can place those images on a page layout, and all RGB images can be handled and optimized properly at the RIP. It does mean correct profiles must either be attached to the images or installed and made available in the RIP. CMYK image data and PDF/X files can be also color managed accurately at the RIP, again with either properly attached profiles or profiles that are in the RIP.

Integrating output profiles
The same logic is used by Colorbyte Software in the fine-art and photography marketplace, where color is critical but budgets are usually quite small. The company has a library of thousands of different profiles for a nearly endless variety of paper stocks. The profiles are bundled into the company's ImagePrint RIP, so the user needs only to select the paper to be used for output and the RIP adjusts the color to the paper. The expense of a spectrophotometer and the investment of time needed to profile each paper type is eliminated. Purists will argue that different batches of the same paper will vary in color characteristics, but it's also true that most paper manufacturers have reasonable quality-control methods to limit the batch-to-batch differences in their product lines.

John Pannozzo, one of the owners of Colorbyte (a Mac- and PC-based RIP), says his company is selling more RIPs to more serious amateurs than to professionals. He says his customers by and large don’t really think they need a RIP, but they do need help with CM. For that reason, every new iteration of the company's basic software attempts to simplify the CM process. As you might guess, for that market space, Pannozzo also sees a big push from producing a static image to photo-related products: greeting cards, photobooks etc. So in addition to all of the bundled profiles, Colorbyte has added frames and borders, background, and text capabilities so that users can output those diverse products from within the RIP application.

Wasatch takes a similar approach on the signage and graphics side of the market. But Wasatch does promote the use of spectrophotometers and other color-calibration instruments to measure and verify color, and builds links into its software to take in data from a wide variety of devices. Using the slogan "great out of the box color," the company promotes the ease of use of the SoftRIP product: "Almost anyone can begin printing accurate color with a minimum of training.'

The software includes a suite of color features, and all settings that can affect your color are bundled into one profile. Users can select the profile that matches their print conditions, and if any adjustment is needed, it's easy to make quick alterations with color correction tools similar to those found in design applications. A "color lock" feature ensures against accidental corruption of color settings, which is especially useful in larger shops where many operators interface with the RIP. Again, the point is to make achieving proper color matches as simple and painless as possible.

Bundling and more
Onyx takes the approach of making its RIP software "play nice" with a wide variety of third-party calibration instruments. This allows the data to be brought directly into the RIP’s tool kit. What this mitigates is the need to translate profile data seamlessly into the RIP. Rather than handle all of the data input through separate software, the Onyx approach is to allow literally dozens of calibration devices from a variety of manufacturers to input directly into the RIP software.

Several companies have gotten into the business of putting complete bundled systems from a variety of vendors together for you as a package, often including training and installation. Chromaticity is one such vendor; it not only supplies software, it also sells media and even has its own branded servers for the EFI RIPs it sells. Other bundling possibilities include Eizo Monitors, X-Rite calibration tools, Integrated Color Solutions (ICS) virtual proofing, and a variety of training and support packages.

In a similar vein, a group of color-management specialists have teamed up to form the Color Management Group (CMG, colormanagementgroup.com). CMG is essentially an alliance of color-management consultants and systems integrators, so it really serves as a place to find experts in your area who can provide the hardware and software as well as the technical expertise to create a custom CM solution for your specific needs. What is unique about this alliance is they all know one another, and even though they are competitors in one sense, each offers his or her own unique expertise, and group members often refer clients to one another if someone else is a better fit. In 2008, the group also held a conference called Extreme Color Management.

Meanwhile, other companies working in or adjacent to the color-management space have been tweaking their own CM offerings:

* SA International (SAi) has created a suite of Color Solutions tools to aid in color measurement and management. Its Sprint color-measurement hardware (a spectrophotometer coupled with 'scan wide aperture' technology), Snap color-profiling software, and the ColorExcel color-control application are designed to give print providers a fast, easy-to-use solution for color consistency.

* EFI's Colorproof XF proofing and production solution added remote-proofing capabilities plus support for Pantone's new Goe System last year. Its XF Satellite configuration is designed for customers working across multiple locations who need to process, print, and verify remote printing file (RPF) formats or "remote containers." Users can now directly process print jobs containing Pantone Color separations and automatically produce color-accurate output of the complete print job.

* X-Rite's ColorMunki Portfolio combines a monitor-calibration tool and a lower-end spectrophotometer for printer profiling with a rather sophisticated but nevertheless simple software package. What the package does is move both calibration technologies and a better, more user-friendly way for designers to understand the nuances of color management. In addition, the software has a built-in lightbooth feature.

* Datacolor's Spyder3 line of color-calibration solutions now includes the Spyder3Pro, Spyder3Print, Spyder3Studio, and Spyder3Elite. Spyder3Pro is a display-calibration tool comprising a colorimeter with a seven-detector color engine with increased aperture plus a Display Assistant that stores and retrieves all user-device-specific information on each display, reducing recalibration time. Spyder3Print is a print-calibration solution that includes software and a Datacolor 1005 spectrocolorimeter combination. Its SpyderGuide enables users to create custom profiles with standard color or black-and-white targets. Spyder3Elite is a more full-featured monitor-calibration package that adds black-and-white luminance controls, gamma curve editing, custom target choices, and more. Spyder3Studio includes both Spyder3Print and Spyder3Elite

* Nazdar Consulting Services' Catzper color-tolerancing software is designed to offer accurate spot-color matches in minimal time. The Catzper Visual Test Grid allows the print provider to quickly output a grid of measured variations of the desired spot color; the operator (or customer) can choose a color on the range, and the software then re-centers and prints another range based on the new target. From there, the desired color match can be chosen visually. The company also has released its Data Capture System (DCS) software, which reads complete color data from a print; once captured, this color information can be used to determine a 'pass' or 'fail' on a print or proof. Plus, printers can compare print to proof, print to print, or job to job and then share the data over their network for review anywhere within the shop.

It's out of our hands
Another approach to simplifying the CM process that can have a great deal of appeal to non-technical clients is to take the process almost completely out of the hands of the end-user. Here, we’re not talking about having an outside party come in and implement CM for you, although that certainly is an option. But products like AbsoluteProof and Maxwell allow users to essentially perform the critical measurement and number-crunching of calibrating and profiling off-site. You upload the data and software on an off-site server, which processes the numbers and lets you know what needs to be done. These models are priced on a pay-as-you-go basis, but they also have a lower entry cost since you don’t need to buy the software or worry about upgrades. More importantly, you don’t need the level of expertise of a color guru; you only need to be able to follow instructions.

Last summer, Gimle/AbsoluteProof of New Zealand began offering a unique approach to CM using an entirely Internet-based subscription service, eliminating the need to outlay funds for equipment and training. The company offers ongoing live support, online installation, access to leading color consultants, no software restrictions, continual upgrades free of charge, an online training video library, and user feedback as a valued input for future development. AbsoluteProof has built its service around Epson’s printer products because these are commonly used in commercial print proofing. AbsoluteProof Live is capable of driving multiple output devices in multiple locations at a cost of $100-$200 USD per month. The subscription-based service has profiles for an array of digital print output devices.

Chromix’s Maxwell is a different subscription service based on a central Web-enabled color repository that allows users to upload and download profiles, color measurements, and other color data files-at any time and from any place. Maxwell also offers device trending, color profiling, profile sharing, and measurement services. The service is really more designed to maintain your CM system than to initiate a CM solution, although Chromix sells products and services for that too. Maxwell's Tracks allow users to monitor devices, pass/fail prints and proofs, and set up a print-performance program for vendors. DisplayWatch automatically tracks calibrated monitors and warns when they no longer meet tolerances or calibration is neglected. Widgets for OSX, Vista, and Apple's iPhone make access easy, and Notifiers alert color managers when something's not right. Maxwell even tracks environment variables such as temperature, humidity, and light booth output.

In essence, Maxwell allows the CM system to be continually monitored and kept up-to-date, a common failing of many CM implementations. It allows customers and print providers direct feedback and control of the CM system and tracks operators to be sure every part of the system is kept calibrated on a regular basis.

Color servers
Some vendors are even developing hybrid CM solutions to provide both on-site and off-site capabilities. Or they are providing server-based models whereby companies with multiple sites can have one location where all of the numbers are crunched and profiles written, and other locations can access the servers and input their data remotely.

Profiles are kept on the server and downloaded from any remote location as needed. In some cases, customers are allowed access to profiles so they can upload their files with the proper profiles already loaded. They can also track the calibration of all of their monitors and output devices. This allows both the customer and the printer to verify they are using correct profiles and all of the input and output devices have been regularly calibrated. Harlequin’s Plus Server RIP 8 and ColorGate’s ProductionServer4 are examples of this approach.

The 'wrong' solution
Clearly the number of alternatives for handling CM has increased significantly in the past few years, and the approach to CM has changed dramatically. The different approaches are particularly well suited to specific printing environments, so what’s best for one company may very well not be what’s best for another. Examining your own needs and workflow and the level of technical expertise available from your employees is the first step to determining which of these solutions fits your own needs.

One thing is certain: Color management is easier and more cost effective today than it has ever been. With all of the different approaches available, the only "wrong" solution is not implementing color management.

Based in Seneca Falls, New York, Stephen Beals is a prepress veteran and our regular Digital Workflow columnist.

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